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January 8, 1998

Melvin L. Kreithen

When Melvin L. Kreithen began studying pigeons, the birds were commonly scorned as flying rats that navigated by some simple, if unknown, process involving magnetics.

But Kreithen, a Pitt associate professor of biology, revealed through his research that pigeons' sensory capabilities are powerful and extraordinarily complex — that they use low-frequency sounds, polarized sunlight, Dopler shifts and ground vibrations to accurately navigate hundreds of miles.

For his pioneering work in sensory biology and his longtime advocacy of birds of various feathers, Kreithen, 56, was nicknamed the Birdman of Langley Hall. He died Dec. 10, 1997, of a heart attack at Shadyside Hospital.

"Mel started out by investigating how pigeons navigate, but that grew into a much more fascinating study of all of their sensory perceptions, the way they perceive the world in general," said Lewis Jacobson, a friend and fellow associate professor in the Pitt biological sciences department.

"More recently, Mel had gotten involved in understanding what can be done to convince birds not to fly into windmills and jet engines," Jacobson added.

Kreithen was in the forefront of efforts to control the nation's growing population of non-migrating Canada geese. Well-intentioned wildlife agencies and park designers released the geese into American ponds and lakes during the late 1950s and early 1960s; the birds adapted to the easy life and stopped migrating. Since then, they have become safety hazards at airports, in addition to polluting the environment (an adult Canada goose eats about three pounds of grass and excretes about two pounds of waste per day).

Kreithen studied sensory mechanisms of monarch butterflies as well as pigeons. His lab maintained facilities for housing and outdoor testing of homing pigeons and flight testing facilities for the study of the migratory orientation of the butterflies. Kreithen raised some 300 homing pigeons in his loft atop Langley Hall. Jacobson described Kreithen as "a scientist of culture. That's something that was expected a generation ago, but we don't see much of it now. Mel was interested in things like art and music and literature, in the wider world, not just his own narrow field of scientific interest." Kreithen also loved to cook, preparing church dinners for 80 to 100 people. He studied guitar with jazz great Charlie Byrd, and recently had begun studying Hebrew.

Kreithen received his Ph.D. from Cornell and was a faculty member there before joining the Pitt faculty in 1980.

He is survived by his wife, Marian, and his children, David and Amy. David is a Ph.D. student at the University of Rochester and Amy is a doctoral student at Pitt in biological anthropology. Kreithen also is survived by his parents, Alexander and Rose Kreithen of Silver Spring, Md., and a sister, Renee Kreithen of Columbia, Md.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Church of the Ascension, 4729 Ellsworth Ave., Pittsburgh 15213.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 9

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